Bret Bielema must have loved how Saturday’s 38-17 opening day victory against Akron worked out.
On paper, the Badgers predictably squashed the Zips, winning by three touchdowns and bettering Akron by nearly two hundred yards on offense. And then there was the not-so-little matter of the nearly 12-minute advantage in possession time (35:49 for Bucky compared to 24:11 for Akron), an area of the game of paramount importance to Bielema.
But coaches want, or perhaps need, their players to perform at a level just under perfection, otherwise there’s little incentive for them to work harder. Coaches of even the best teams will look for any area that needs improvement; a post-game speech will never end with the phrase, “Well, team, it looks like you’ve got everything down just the way we’ve been working on. No need for any more practices. I think there are still a couple of flights to Tijuana leaving later today. Go down, have a good time, call me if you need a good lawyer, and we’ll see you back here for the next game.”
The Badgers’ performance gave Bielema and his staff several areas — most notably eliminating turnovers and shoring up the pass defense — to work on for next Saturday’s game against Marshall, a team that almost assuredly will be a tougher opponent than the beleaguered Akron Zips.
Let’s start with what worked well, and that was the running game led by P.J. Hill (210 yards) with much support from Zach Brown (87 yards) and freshman John Clay (71 yards). Simply put, the running game was there all day for the Badgers, as Wisconsin piled up a stunning 404 yards on the ground. Much of the credit has to go to Wisconsin’s offensive line, who completely dominated the Zips defensive front, which was heavily crippled due to their coaches’ puzzling stubbornness at playing a 3-3-5 formation, the least effective way to attack a run-heavy offense like Wisconsin’s.
[Side note: In honor of the late comedian Benny Hill, who relied heavily on his “Hill’s Angels” troupe of women to fill time on his show, I’m trying to revive the “Hill’s Angels” moniker in conjunction with P.J. Hill, but I can’t decide whether the “Angels” should refer to his position cohorts Brown and Clay, or to the front seven that provides the holes that Hill bursts through. Feel free to e-mail me your thoughts.]
For the most part, new starting quarterback Allan Evridge also played well, though he clearly wasn’t put into the position of having to make plays to win this game. Despite playing nearly the entire sixty minutes, Evridge attempted only ten passes, completing seven for 75 yards and one touchdown, a performance that Evridge himself self-deprecatingly summed up as, “I think I did fairly well. I handed off the ball all right.” But even in his limited role, Evridge had a couple of notable throws, specifically a 20-yard beaut to Garrett Graham on the first drive of the game and a 15-yarder to Kyle Jefferson near the end of the first quarter that had to give coaches and fans confidence that Evridge was the right man for the job.
Evridge’s stats would have been better had it not been for a sure third-down touchdown pass that was dropped by David Gilreath on the first play of the second quarter. This missed opportunity was a prophetic beginning to a miserable second quarter that provided all of the ammunition that Bielema would need to convince his team that it needed to play better if it hoped to uphold its gaudy preseason ranking.
Following Philip Welch’s first field goal as a Badger that made the score 17-0, Akron’s offense suddenly caught fire, driving 72 yards on 10 plays on a touchdown scoring drive. But the Badgers defense undeniably helped Akron out, as the drive exposed the Badgers’ remarkably soft secondary: Akron receivers were wide open all afternoon and as often as not quarterback Chris Jacquemain’s fourteen incompletions (he went a respectable 22-of-36 for 227 yards and 2 TDs) were due to his receivers dropping some very catchable balls.
With Akron cutting Wisconsin’s lead to 17-7, Wisconsin appeared poised to regain its 17-point lead thanks to a marvelous 63-yard kickoff return by David Gilreath and a 15-yard face mask penalty called on Akron’s Mike Thomas. But on the drive’s third play and Hill’s third-straight carry, Hill fumbled the ball in the end zone, resulting in a touchback. After Akron failed to convert, Wisconsin embarked on another impressive drive led by Hill and Brown, only to see its scoring opportunities end with another end zone turnover, this time on a very poorly-thrown end-zone interception, which Akron’s Bryan Williams (a converted running back with great speed) returned 62 yards to the Wisconsin 38 with just 22 seconds left in the half. The Badgers’ surprisingly porous secondary allowed Jacquemain to complete two passes for thirty yards in twenty seconds, setting up a field goal, a halftime score of 17-10, and a stunned Camp Randall crowd of 80,910 (not to mention the thousands watching their first game on the Big Ten Network).
But Badger fans would not be stunned for long. Knowing what his team needed to do to stop Akron’s surprising surge, Bielema relied even more heavily on the running game in the second half — in fact, Evridge threw only one pass in the final thirty minutes, a six-yard, third-down completion to Gilreath. Hill, Brown, Clay, and the Badgers’ front seven completely wore down Akron’s defense in the second half, running wild on three consecutive touchdown scoring drives that put the game — and Akron’s upset bid — thoroughly out of reach.
A late touchdown drive by the Zips highlighted by remarkably soft defensive play might have been more forgettable if the defensive backfield hadn’t let the Zips receivers get open even when the outcome was briefly in doubt. Tightening up its pass coverage will have to be a priority if the Badgers are to succeed against much stiffer competition this year. But if the offensive line can continue to create gaps for Wisconsin’s excellent rushing attack, thereby wearing out defenses and dominating time of possession — basically, what’s come to be unimaginatively labeled as “Wisconsin football” — the Badgers will be, if not perfect, then at the least very successful.